Getting the H-1B Visa: all you need to know

Gabriela Peratello
17.06.21
8 minute read

Want to know more about the H-1B Visa for the US? You’re in the right place.

The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa classification available to people working in speciality occupations, fashion models and those involved in some defense projects. However, there are strict eligibility criteria — and caps in place to limit the number of people given H-1B visa status.

Read this guide to learn more about H-1B visas — we’ll also touch on how you can save money as an expat in the US, using Wise. With Wise and the Wise multi-currency Account you’ll cut the costs of currency conversion and international payments, leaving you with more to spend on yourself.

📑 Table of Contents

What is the H-1B Visa?

H-1B visas are sponsored by employers in the US, and issued to people working in the following types of roles¹:

  • Specialty occupations
  • Department of Defense (DoD) research and projects
  • Fashion models

In each case, the aim of the H-1B visa category is to allow employers to bring in workers who they could not otherwise find in the US. This may be because of the level of skill and training that is required to perform a role, or because the subject matter is extremely specialist, for example. H-1B visas may be useful for people working in academic positions where their niche is unusual, for IT and technology specialists with experience which is out of the ordinary, or other similarly specialized roles.

Rules exist to stop local US workers being adversely affected by H-1B visa status employees, which means that employers must demonstrate that they can not find anyone locally to fulfil the role. There are also safeguards in place to protect the workers arriving on H-1B visas, and ensure they are paid a fair wage².

Who’s eligible for the H-1B Visa?

To apply for the H-1B visa as a speciality worker, you’ll need to be entering an occupation which:

  • Requires the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized knowledge
  • Requires at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree

The employer will need to prove that the same role in other organisations would also require a degree, or that the role is so complex it could only be completed by someone with specialist knowledge. As an applicant for the H-1B visa you’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have a bachelor’s degree or higher, or else a significant level of experience or state licensing in the field to make you a suitable candidate for the job.

If you’re applying for this visa category as a fashion model you’ll need to be able to show you’re a model of distinguished merit and ability.

People who are seeking the H-1B type visa under the DoD route will need to fulfil the same basic eligibility requirements as people entering into specialist occupations, as well as having evidence from the DoD of the nature of the position.

How long can you stay in the US with the H-1B Visa?

H-1B visas are usually issued for 3 years, and can be extended up to a further 3 years. A total of 6 years is the cap for most H-1B visa holders, although there are a few exceptions to this.

What if you have a previous H-1B Visa?

Once your H-1B visa is coming to an end your employer may choose to apply for an extension. However, this must be done prior to your existing visa ending. The application process for a renewal follows much the same steps as the regular application process laid out below. Your employer or their representative will need to carry out most of the steps, which include proving that nobody locally is equally able to do the job you’re doing, and showing evidence of your qualifications and ability to perform the role.

In most cases, H-1B visas will only be extended once. If you want to stay longer than the 6 year extended period you’ll need to either leave and reapply for a different visa type — there may be a waiting period before you can do this — or start the process to apply for a Green Card. We’ll cover a little about applying for a Green Card later.

business-man-briefcase

Applying for the H-1B Visa

To get an H-1B visa, you’ll need to take the following steps. Many of these actions are initiated by your sponsor employer, or their agent:

  • Employer or agent must sign up for H-1B electronic registration during one of the open registration windows
  • Employer seeks an LCA (Labor Condition Application) which shows the Department of Labor agree that this role can be fulfilled via the H-1B route
  • If both your LCA and H-1B petition are accepted, you can then prepare your H-1B application filing
  • Employer completes Form I-129, and submits to USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services). Prospective employee will be asked to provide supporting documents and evidence for this application
  • Assuming the prospective employee is outside of the US, they now apply for a visa via their local US consulate or embassy

H-1B Electronic Registration

In 2020, a new system was launched to better manage the cap on applications for H-1B visas³. Under this system, the employer must register their intention to apply for H-1B visa employees in advance, and pay a 10 USD registration fee. Registration is only offered during set time windows to manage demand.

Using forecasts which show how many applications are required to meet the annual cap on H-1B visas, a set number of registrations are selected, and invited to complete the full application process. This process means that employers do not need to invest a significant amount of time and money in applying for H-1B visas until they have been invited to do so — at which point their chances of successfully applying are higher.

Documents and requirements

Once the employer has received the LCA for the role, and been invited to apply for their H-1B visa, the form required is known as I-129. This is completed by the employer, and submitted along with evidence of the LCA and the fee payment. Evidence of the educational attainment of the prospective worker is also required at this time⁴.

In most cases this form must be filed in the filing location closest to the company head office. There’s a full list of addresses — and detailed filing instructions — on the USCIS website.

H-1B visa cap

Congress sets a cap on the number of H-1B visas which can be issued annually. Some visas from the number allocated are also held back to meet the terms of free trade agreements. However, some select H-1B non immigrant visa petitions are not subject to the cap.

In total at the time of writing there are 65,000 H-1B visas available annually under the congressional cap.

Processing times for the H-1B Visa

When the employer is told that their electronic registration has been successful, they will be notified of the filing period which is open to them. This must be no more than 6 months prior to the planned employment start date. The final paperwork must then be completed and sent in during this time frame.

Processing times can vary depending on the filing location and demand at the time. You’ll be able to check on the average time taken to process Form I-129 (the key application form for any H-1B visa) by filing location, online⁵. At the time of research, as an example, you can expect an application submitted in California to take 2 to 4 months.

H-1B Visa costs

The filing fee for Form I-129 is 460 USD — however there is an additional fee of 500 USD to 4,000 USD for some employers. This mainly applies to larger employers who already have a high number of staff on H-1B visa types⁶. You may also need to pay a biometric fee depending on where the prospective employee is at the time of the application.

💡 No matter how much you need to pay for your H-1B visa, if you’re paying in a foreign currency you can save money with Wise. Wise offers low cost international payments which use the real mid-market exchange rate with no markups — that can work out much cheaper than making a transfer overseas with your regular bank.

If you’re paying for an H-1B visa on behalf of an employee, check out the Wise Business Account as a smart way to make savings whenever you need to pay or get paid from abroad.

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Can you take your spouse and children to the US if you have a H-1B visa?

If your application for a H-1B visa is approved your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 are able to apply for entry to the US under the H-4 nonimmigrant classification.

Checking the status of your application

Check the progress of your application for a US visa on the USCIS website. You’ll need your identification number to find your case, and can then track the status on the handy online tool.

What’s the path for becoming a permanent US resident?

The H-1B visa type does not give you indefinite leave to remain in the US. Usually these visas are issued for 3 years initially and then can be extended once, to make a total stay of 6 years. But what if you want to stay for longer after that?

One option is to pursue routes to becoming a US Green Card holder. The Green Card is issued to people with permanent residence rights in the US⁷. It’s not the same as being a citizen, but it can be an important step on the journey if naturalizing as a US citizen is your ultimate aim.

To apply to become a Green Card holder you’ll usually need to have a sponsor. This may be a family member who is a US citizen, or an employer for example. There are strict eligibility criteria which dictate who is able to apply for permanent residence in the US, so you’ll need to review this information and see if you fall into any category. It’s also worth looking at how the process runs from start to finish. Depending on your eligibility category, it may take a long time to process your paperwork, so understanding the demands up front makes sense.

The basic steps you’ll need to take are:

  • Have someone enter an immigrant petition on your behalf — this is your sponsor
  • Once this is approved, you can submit your application for a Green Card either at USCIS within the US, or at your local embassy if you’re elsewhere
  • Attend a biometrics appointment and interview
  • Await a decision

There are caps on the numbers of Green Cards issued across most categories. Unless you’re applying as an immediate family member of a US citizen — Green Cards under this category are not subject to caps — this may mean a lengthy wait until your application is processed.

Want to know more? Check out these handy articles on the topic:

Moving to the US? Save by using Wise

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Filling out visa paperwork and navigating complex immigration processes can be a headache. When it comes to the H-1B visa, your prospective employer or their agent will do most of the hard work — but you’ll still have a part to play in providing supporting documents and keeping things moving.

Use this guide, the support of your employer, and the range of resources out there to help, to make sure the process goes smoothly. You could be headed off for your new adventure in the US in no time. Good luck!


Sources:

  1. USCIS - H-1B specialty occupations
  2. Dol.gov - Immigration H-1B
  3. USCIS - H-1B electronic registration process
  4. USCIS - H-1B cap season
  5. USCIS - Processing times
  6. USCIS - Fee increase for certain H-1B and I-1 petitions
  7. USCIS - Green Card

Sources checked on 06.17.2021


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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